Fearless is more of a sports drama than a Chinese Martial Arts movies, but it doesn't adhere to usual formulas applied to either. In both cases, such films usually start out with the story of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, or a poor farmer, or a woolly-headed drunkard (pick your downtrodden stereotype) and follow him as he rises from nothing to become a master competitor or in the case of the typical Martial Arts film, freedom fighter. Fearless throws out all of that and starts with an arrogant, spoiled, brat.
Jet Li plays Huo Yuanjia, son of a prominent Martial Arts master, and practitioner of the Huo Wushu style living around the start of the twentieth century. He dreams of becoming the world's greatest fighter, not to help the poor or earn the respect of others, but because he wants others to fear him. After taking a beating from an older boy he vows never again to be defeated, and he never is. But at what cost? If there's a villain in the first half of the film, it's the smiling, happy, large-living Huo Yuanjia. He may not wish anyone any specific harm, but he's reckless, careless, and he's obsessed with his own legend. It's not long before he's wearing black robes and being followed around by a gang of thugs which call themselves his disciples. Yuanjia pays no heed to the sort of people he's surrounded himself with, and keeps defeating all comers with a big, hearty smile.
Things eventually go horribly wrong for Yuanjia, and he's not so much laid low as torn apart. Not through defeat, but through what it finally costs him to achieve victory. Even at his worst, there's a good man somewhere inside Yuanjia, and it takes a complete and utter disaster to bring it out.
Yuanjia staggers out into the world and leaves everything behind, only to land in a place that looks an awful lot like the Shire from Lord of the Rings. He spends years there, and when he's finished he hasn't been completely transformed into some wholly new, fighting fierce creature ready for revenge. No, he's the same smiling fighter, but he's changed his convictions about life and comes home to beg forgiveness for his arrogance. For him, doing that means inspiring others to be what it took him so much time to become.
You might not know it if you've only seen him struggling strangle out English in Hollywood movies, but Jet Li is actually an incredibly skilled actor. Fearless brings plenty of amazing Martial Arts fighting action to the table, but it's Li's deep and passionate performance as Huo Yuanjia that makes the film work on an entirely higher level.
What struck me most about Li's work as Yuanjia is how open and real he makes the character feel. Usually in a Chinese period film like this, the main character sits down and dispenses pithy wisdom with an air of ineffable serenity. Yuanjia is indeed wise, but when he speaks he does so plainly and with gentle humility. When he talks about his views on life, he smiles happily and speaks so simply; it's as if he's only telling you what he thinks, and then will wait patiently to see if perhaps there's someone else with a better philosophy. If there is, he'll happily take it.
Fearless is so much more grounded in reality than most epic Chinese movies. It's a movie about a man fighting the enemy within himself, winning, and then using that strength to inspire others to in turn better themselves as well. It's not just Li's performance that makes it great of course, the fighting is stellar as well. Unlike most of these movies, Fearless manages to remain at least somewhat grounded in the real world, while at the same time putting in enough fantasy to allow Jet to dazzle with some pretty impressive moves. That same philosophy is applied to the film on a visual level too. Fearless is beautiful to look at, but it achieves its look without resorting to the over-coloration so many other Chinese period epics fall prey too.
Jet Li says this is a personal film, one that reflects his own ideas on life. Huo Yuanjia is a real person, and it was he who changed the path of Chinese fighting away from killing towards a simple battle of skill. He made it dishonorable for fighters to kill their opponents in the ring, and started the Jin Wu Sports Federation to ensure that future generations would learn from his mistakes. Apparently one member of those future generations was Jet Li.
There's been a lot of talk from Jet and from his PR people about how this will be his last Martial Arts film. As it turns out, that's not exactly true. Jet will continue to do action movies, but says this is the last movie he'll do based on those specific Wushu philosophies which Huo Yuanjia held so dear. Actually, it's almost a shame that this isn't his retirement film. As a way to go out, I can't imagine anything more beautifully appropriate. The movie ends not with a stunning display of fighting prowess, but with an act of honor and courage which solidifies for Yuanjia the respect of his people, rather than the fear he once craved. What a fitting way that would have been for Jet, a great Martial Arts legend in his own right, to say goodbye.